Connecticut official pushes for prison nursery for new moms

Victoria Steele saw her daughter on the day she was born, and was not allowed to see her again for five years.

Steele, just 18 at the time, was wanted for violating the terms of her supervised home release on a robbery charge. She was sent to the York Correctional Institution directly from the hospital. The state placed the baby with her paternal grandparents, who spoke only Spanish and never brought the child to visit in prison.

"I was so depressed," said Steele, now 45, of West Hartford. "I was emotionally, mentally, and physically lost. I had no I idea how to connect. It was like losing my child. I lost her. There were no support services in prison."

Soon, though, there may be a nursery. Correction Commissioner Leo Arnone wants to study whether newborns could be allowed to live behind bars with their incarcerated mothers.

The legislature's Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would have the Correction Department study similar programs in other states and issues, determine how long an infant should be allowed to stay in the nursery, and recommend who might qualify for the program.

In the past year, 16 babies were born to women in the custody of the state. York, the only prison in the state for women, has just over 1,000 inmates. Under Connecticut's current policy, the mothers are allowed to stay with their newborns only while in the hospital. After that, and usually within 48 hours of giving birth, the parent returns to prison, and the child is placed with a relative or in foster care.

"And visitation is not child friendly," said Aileen Keays, who runs the Children of Incarcerated Parents project at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, which is housed at Central Connecticut State University.

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